Mental health has long been a taboo topic in football. Yet, despite increasing prevalence within the game, the sport’s treatment of these issues still falls short. It seems there's still an underlying sentiment held by some that footballers are living the dream – being paid handsomely to play a sport millions across the globe spend hours playing for free. And it's because of this idyllic picture that so many paint, people struggle to understand how professional footballers could possibly suffer with their own mental health.
But this is a massive oversimplification.
Football is one of the most physically and mentally demanding professions. Players are often enrolled into academies as early as seven years old and the sacrifices necessary to earn a professional contract are greater than we realise.
Most don’t get to experience the carefree childhoods we look back on with fondness, the aimless hours of fun with friends that form our most precious memories. For all that sacrifice, less than 1% of footballers make it onto the professional scene. Despite how psychologically debilitating this process can be, especially for young people, it’s just an accepted part of every footballer’s journey. And that’s only the prelude.
If we’re being real, the life of a professional footballer is much more stressful than we often see. The uncertainty of having to move cities, countries and even continents at a moment’s notice, the constant abuse and the chronic injuries are just some of the reasons why footballers have suffered from various forms of mental health issues for decades. Yet there are still those who believe players are somehow immune.
— Burnley FC (@BurnleyOfficial) November 9, 2023
This is why Burnley’s handling of Lyle Foster feels like a landmark moment.
The club released a statement on behalf of Foster and his family to announce he is in the care of specialists to help him back to full health. Burnley manager Vincent Kompany also came out and said no timeframe has been put on Foster’s return to the team.
By taking a refreshingly candid approach to such a sensitive issue, Burnley are normalising conversations around mental health in football while also ensuring Foster’s situation is handled with the respect and attention it deserves. But most importantly, it forces us to come to terms with the toll this sport can take on a player’s mental wellbeing and what steps can be taken to help.
For Foster, it was moving from his native South Africa to pursue a career in Europe and battling the loneliness and depression that followed. What makes Burnley’s statement so poignant is that they aren’t solely focused on spotting Foster’s troubles, but instead it’s about ensuring he is in an environment where mental health is dealt with sincerely – a rarity in football. Foster credited Craig Bellamy, assistant manager at Burnley who has also battled with mental health issues, for helping him open up about his struggles.
Almost every time a player speaks about their issues with mental health, it’s done in hindsight. The stories are told with a hint of relief but the emotional scars of wrestling with these lows alone are there for all to see. Wayne Rooney recently revealed he used to drink alcohol until he passed out to cope with the pressures of professional football in his early 20s. Dele Alli spoke powerfully about his addiction to sleeping pills and how it affected his relationship with the game. And yet we’ve already seen a number of bad faith media reports about Marcus Rashford, strategically timed around his drop in form.
While we shouldn’t gloss over the strength it takes to overcome these issues, not every player will be able to conquer their demons in the same way.
As much as the wider football landscape likes to passively trivialise mental health within the sport, it is a collective issue which needs a collective response that goes beyond merely having the conversation when serious instances arise. It’s about developing a safe space for players to confront these issues before they reach their breaking point. It’s about treating the mental health of footballers on a par with their physical health. How many more retrospective accounts will we hear before football learns from its mistakes?
Burnley cannot destigmatise mental health in football on their own. It is time for the rest of football to be real about the causes and how it can better protect its players from them.
The longer it feels taboo to talk about mental health, the more footballers will feel the need to suffer in silence.